Updated at 5:51 p.m. ET on 2017-01-19
Delegates from 57 Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries ended a special meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday by voicing “grave concern” about the welfare of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims and calling on Naypyidaw to stop violence affecting the stateless minority.
The Muslim world’s largest inter-governmental body urged Myanmar to restore calm in northwestern Rakhine state and ensure that its security forces follow the rule of law in a communiqué issued at the end of the one-day meeting of OIC’s Council of Foreign Ministers. It also called on the country to hold all perpetrators of violence accountable,
The violence that has victimized Rohingya should stop and the root causes of the crisis should be tackled through interreligious and intercultural dialogue, host Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak told the OIC gathering.
“So, as a true and long-standing friend to Myanmar, I say this from the bottom of my heart: It is time to end this crisis,” Najib said. “How should it be resolved? For a start, the killing must stop. The burning of houses must stop. The violation of women and girls must stop.”
When contacted by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, a spokesman for Myanmar’s government declined to comment Thursday on the meeting in Malaysia.
Meanwhile, outside the Malaysian embassy, Myanmar citizen Myat Hsu Mon staged a solo protest.
She told RFA’s Myanmar service she had sent a letter to the embassy asking that the country respect the rights of the 135 ethnic groups on Myanmar’s official list – which does not include the Rohingya.
“Fifty-seven OIC countries held a meeting in Malaysia to discuss a Myanmar problem,” she said. “It is direct interference in and an insult to Myanmar’s sovereignty. I can’t accept it; and that’s why I’m protesting.”
Myat Hsu Mon holds up a sign that reads “I reject the pressure of 57 OIC countries to Myanmar during a meeting in Malaysia,” during a solo protest in Yangon, Jan. 19, 2017. [RFA]
Since the Myanmar military launched a crackdown in Rakhine in early October, following the killings of nine Burmese border guards by suspected insurgents, security personnel have been accused of carrying out killings, rapes, acts of arson and arbitrary arrests targeting Rohingya. The government in Naypyidaw has denied those allegations.
The OIC’s communiqué also called on Myanmar to restore citizenship to thousands of Rohingya that was revoked under the country’s Citizenship Act of 1982.
The document proposed steps to help solve the crisis. These include requesting the U.N. secretary general coordinate with Myanmar to arrange for a high-level OIC delegation to visit Rakhine state and meet with local officials and Rohingya.
It said another step was to ask the secretary general to explore joint initiatives between the U.N. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that “can support the Government of Myanmar to develop and implement inter-faith and inter-communal dialogues.”
The OIC represents at least 1.6 billion Muslims around the globe.
Nearly 90 people have been killed in the violence in Rakhine, and as many as 65,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, according to U.N. figures. In Bangladesh, the new refugees join at least 300,000 other Rohingya who had taken refuge in previous years in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district.
Bangladesh has refused to grant the Rohingya refugee status because it considers them citizens of Myanmar. Myanmar, meanwhile, considers those who return to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and has denied them citizenship and access to basic services for decades.
Another 90,000 Rohingya refugees are in Malaysia. Of those, 56,000 have received refugee status cards from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Kuala Lumpur.
The OIC on Thursday invited its member-states to share the costs incurred by Bangladesh, Malaysia and other countries that are sheltering Rohingya “in accordance with the principles of burden-sharing and shared responsibility, and in the spirit of Islamic solidarity.”
‘The Rohingya cannot wait’
Najib, who leads predominantly Muslim Malaysia, angered Buddhist majority Myanmar in recent weeks by describing its military crackdown as “genocide.”
“The government of Myanmar disputes the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing,’ but whatever the terminology, the Rohingya cannot wait,” Najib said Thursday. “Many have suffered appalling deaths and those that have lived through the atrocities have witnessed or endured unspeakable cruelty. That in itself is a reason why we cannot keep silent.”
In his speech, the prime minister warned that Islamic extremists could use the plight of the Rohingya, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh by Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority population, as a way to radicalize the minority group, which is denied basic rights.
"We fear that if the situation of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State is not properly addressed, militant elements could infiltrate and possibly radicalize this oppressed community," Najib said, according to a transcript.
"OIC Member States are well aware that terrorist organizations such as Daesh could seek to take advantage of this situation," he added, using another acronym for Islamic State.
Citizenship: 'Very important'
Faisal Islam Muhammad Kassim, president of Rohingya Society Malaysia, welcomed OIC’s call for citizenship for his people.
“This citizenship issue is very important. It we don’t get any status in Myanmar, it will be very difficult for us to get basic human rights inside the country,” he told BenarNews.
“If our people will get full citizenship rights in Myanmar, and if we have the opportunity to go back to Arakan, we are ready to go back to Myanmar,” he added, referring to Rakhine by a different name.